I’ve always had a very strong perspective on the treatment of wild animals and the ridiculous practices that are passed off as conservation for their kind. A few years ago, I helped piece together a breaking investigative piece that looked into how lion cubs were used as cuddle toys in the tourism trade and then sold off to hunters and big game farms who brought them to the end of their lives shortly after.
I don’t believe in the use of any animals for entertainment purposes and go as far to even disagree with the practice of riding horses. I’ve point blank refused to get on elephant-back safari rides on press trips, much to the dismay of the poor public relations person who has arranged the excursion, and have also walked out of zoos and petting farms in the same manner across the world.
In Thailand, my first wildlife experience was a terrible one. I was taken to an elephant back ride facility where the elephants were clearly depressed, a massive python was locked in a cage smaller than my shower and staff were less than concerned about how the animals felt, but rather how quickly they could get us involved in their circus. A short lunch break later though; I was introduced to one of the most amazing wildlife experiences that I’ve ever come across. Sadly, I fear this is one of very few of its kind in Thailand, but it’s a very small start in any case against the maltreatment of animals in the country.
The Gibbon Rehabilitation Project in Phuket is one of the most astounding places. Walking up the modest pathway into the forest outside the facility, you’d be forgiven for thinking you were literally being lead down the garden path. When I made my way up into the opening in the forest where the office and information centre for this project is situated, it became clear how earnest and worthy this cause is.
Our guide Helen was informative and passionate yet not overbearing about the plight of the gibbons in Thailand. Used for tourist entertainment, gibbons are regularly poached from their natural forest habitat and used to pose for photos and perform tricks in dense tourist areas. In exchange for cash, poachers allow tourists to ‘cuddle’ these young gibbons and take photos to show their friends back home. More often than not, these gibbons are drugged to maintain a placid nature, and beaten when they become older and start to become aggressive, as is the nature of wild animals.
The Gibbon Rehabilitation Project aims to remove gibbons from these unnatural and harmful situations. Gibbons are an endangered species, making the fight against poachers all that more important in order to secure their survival as a species. The project’s small facility houses a number of gibbons rescued from across Thailand, either seized by authorities or handed over by poachers and gangsters. Here, these gibbons are encouraged to fall back into their natural habits, find a mate and even start a small family before eventually being reintroduced into the wild.
This is also the only facility of its kind in Thailand, and one that does far reaching work for such a small (volunteer) staff compliment.
Visiting the Gibbon Rehabilitation Project, its clear how important these animals are to the people who have committed their time to helping out here. Volunteers clean cages, simulate natural environments and even nurture some gibbons as if they were their own children in order to get them back to their natural habitat.
Starting with a brief introduction, guests are shown around a small outdoor area educating them about gibbons and the conservation role this project plays in their future. After, a small viewing area allows you a glimpse of the gibbons being prepared to make their back to the wild. There is no cuddling, stroking or up-close interaction with these animals. And I’ve honestly never been happier about seeing a conservation project in action; these guys are doing it right.
There is also a separate section for gibbons that need peace and quiet to recover the traumas of their lives before coming here. Their stories are sad and ugly, and heartbreaking. These gibbons are kept in another camp further out and are not accessible to guests.
There are a number of ways to contribute to this project when visiting: spending some money at the gift shop which supports the operation of this sanctuary, donating cash at the facility or even opting to adopt a gibbon of your choice so they are looked after long after you’ve left. You can also make a donation online should you wish.
The project has a fantastic Facebook page here, but if you’re in Phuket please do try visit and spend some time here and leave some precious Thai Baht behind for the sake of the gibbons.
If you, like me, spot a gibbon being used for these tourist practices, visit this website to report it to the authorities. The more complaints, the more likely something is to get done.
If you get a chance to visit this wonderful place, please let me know, it would just make my heart so happy for those beautiful gibbons.